Hi, my name is Jocelyn and I have just finished my first semester of my Master of Arts (MA) program at the University of Guelph. I am currently studying the impact of expert participation in volunteer tourism and exploring if that leads to critical global citizenship. I have been researching volunteer tourism since the summer of 2015 and finding that research (and a prof who was interested in the same topic) is what helped me confirm that I wanted to start my MA program. Grad school wasn’t really something I had considered until very late in my undergraduate program, but I’m so happy that I chose to apply. When you’re in your master’s program, your school, work, and social lives seem to combine and this unique lifestyle offers both challenges and rewards.
In terms of your school life, the research that you are working on is tailored to your interests, and you are the only one who is researching this subject. This offers a level of gratification that you’ll never experience in an undergraduate program. One of my peers commented that she didn’t know you could study something that wasn’t boring in a grad program. The point of having this tailored program is that you get to pick what interests you, so it will never be boring. There is a lot of reading required and it can sometimes be overwhelming, but it helps that you get to choose the readings that you will look at and they are closely related to the subject you choose to study. One thing that I definitely enjoyed: no more exams! This doesn’t mean that you don’t learn anything – quite the opposite, you’ll learn a lot. Most classes are held as seminars which means that you will discuss the readings as groups. There were even a few instances when I revisited readings that I had completed in my undergrad, but the level of engagement with those readings was significantly higher. Grad school seems targeted at offering a greater depth of knowledge compared to an undergrad, and this certainly makes it easier to engage with school work.
I would have to say that another rewarding aspect of the program is being a Teaching Assistant (TA). There are certainly times when it is challenging: balancing the workload, addressing student concerns, and occasionally having to give out a low grade were tasks that were not always easy. However, most of the time you are engaging with students in a way that is very productive and I was always happy when my students would leave my office with a greater understanding of their assignments. I also loved to see that most students would listen to my feedback and perform better on their future assignments. It helps that being a TA is a paid position – you don’t have to worry about OSAP loans or begging your boss for time off around busy times in the semester. Though I owe a lot to the retail position I worked in during my undergrad, working for my department makes balancing school and work a lot easier and offers work experience that is more relevant to my future career.
Being in grad school is like living in a bubble. It offers a unique sense of freedom while also requiring a lot of effort and dedication. The people that best understand your new lifestyle are your profs and the people in the program with you. Because of this, you quickly form bonds with those around you. The most rewarding thing that has come out of my program so far is my relationships with the people in my program. It seems like every experience that we have in this program brings us closer together in some way. In the earlier part of the semester we would have frequent social events and spend time comparing our research interests, our classes, and our advisors’ various methods of guiding us. At challenging times in the semester, we would work in groups to keep each other accountable and occasionally commiserate about an assignment. This also made it much more rewarding when we finished the work and could celebrate together. The support and guidance that I’ve received from colleagues and friends have solidified these relationships – we have even planned vacations together. I look forward to spending four more semesters with this new group of friends.
Overall, I am so glad that I chose to study at the University of Guelph for my MA. I was very apprehensive about my ability to do the work, and to keep pace with my peers. Though it has been challenging, everyone is very supportive and you will find that you are up to the challenge if you choose to accept it. I’ve spoken to people who have said that they look back on the time spent in their master’s program and consider it to be some of the best years of their lives. It is so rare to have an opportunity to commit yourself to something your passionate about, and build a strong sense of community with other like-minded people. I have only completed my first semester and though it was not always easy, I am looking forward to enjoying these years while I’m in them.
By: Kendal Clark
In the dark of the night, huge waves crash against the deck of a ship as the crew desperately tries to pull in their crab pots. Amid sweeping shots of the mountains and ocean, and a generous number of close-ups of soaring bald eagles, brave crews battle the elements to harvest crab. Over these slow motion images we hear the narration: “October. Dutch Harbour, Alaska. Twenty-four hours before the start of the king crab season. Captains and crews brace for departure. Unusual weather, and larger quotas will test Captains’ resolve. For the next thirteen weeks the rush is on to claim the 70 million dollar bounty of the Bering Sea.” The start of the king crab season also signals the beginning of the twelfth season of Deadliest Catch.
Deadliest Catch, with its video games, merchandise and a number of spin-offs, is a widely recognizable reality television show. Its success has inspired a tidal wave of similar shows that focus on workers in the primary sector; arguably, resource-focused reality television is its own sub-genre. For my Master’s project I am systematically analyzing the way that nature and human-environment relations are represented in resource-focused reality tv, looking specifically at shows about commercial fishing, mining, or logging. When I describe my research the reaction I receive normally begins with intrigue or enthusiasm and ends with a blunt question: “why”? Well, the answer is that the constant flood of images people see in the media impact the way that they understand the world around them. In the case of resource-focused reality tv, what do images of primarily male crews battling the hostile wilderness say to audiences about society and the world around them?
In Summer 2016, I sampled and conducted discourse analysis on 100 different episodes across 15 different series that focused on primary sector activities. The first challenge was to determine which themes are integral to attracting audiences and telling stories about cast members, and, of these, which ones to focus deeper interpretive attention on. You have all these pieces, but how do they intersect? What is missing or isn’t being said, and why? Based on existing literature in political ecology, feminist geography, and media studies, I decided to focus on the themes of masculinity and nationalism, and examine/characterize the ways that they underlie human-environment relations in the shows. For example, while there is some variance across series and different resources, it is very common for story arcs to rest on the antics of and challenges faced by hyper-masculine cast members battling a feminized Mother Nature not willing to easily give up her bounty.
Now closer to finishing my project, I see discourse analysis as a learning process. As you immerse yourself in your data, which for me means watching and re-watching the episodes in my sample, you draw together different threads that can be interpreted in ways that tell about the possible societal meanings and implications of these shows. Coming to new understanding in this manner is a challenging but satisfying process.
By: Amy Kipp
In any type of research, it is important for researchers to understand how their identity may impact their findings. As a researcher whose focus is on identity, understanding my own positionality and how this might impact my research findings has been a crucial part of my project.
My research focuses on volunteer tourism, and the large gender gap that exists within the industry (with 80% of volunteers being female!). Specifically, I am examining how this gender gap impacts the activities, interactions and spaces that volunteers have access to while abroad, and in turn how this impacts understandings and representations of the Global South in the Global North. This summer, before entering the field (I spent 2 weeks in Guatemala on a volunteer trip doing participant observation), I reflected on my positionality and how it might impact my findings. In a journal entry prior to my time in Guatemala I stated:
I am a cisgender woman. I am straight and in a monogamous relationship. I am a white Canadian. I am university educated and relatively financially stable. I identify as a feminist and believe strongly in equal rights. I believe that all of these things at varying degrees impact my views on gender and how gender impacts a volunteer’s experience…Throughout my data collection, I am and will continue to try my best to be cognisant of how my positionality, “biases” and experiences impact the way I collect and analyze data.
One thing I neglected to write about, however, was my identity as a researcher and how this would impact my participant observation. I can easily say that playing the dual role of a researcher and a participant on a volunteer trip impacted my experience in many ways.
A main component of the volunteer trip was group debrief sessions. In these sessions we would discuss issues ranging from power and privilege, to the culture of Guatemala, to current news items. The organization that I had chosen to go with presented itself as a trip focused on education and solidarity, and as a result I assumed (wrongly) that participants would all be coming from similar academic backgrounds. In our discussions, however, I quickly realized that this was not the case. The discourse in these conversations was at times incredibly Western-centric, Islamophobic, sexist and homophobic. In many of these discussions I was incredibly conflicted internally, wanting to observe the natural progression of the conversation without interfering but also feeling a moral responsibility to challenge the harmful language being used.
It was very challenging to navigate my role as a researcher and participant; if I was solely a participant in the trip I would have felt more comfortable calling people out on their prejudice and ignorance. As a researcher, however, I was hesitant to be confrontational for several reasons. First, I wanted to be understanding that not everyone had studied these issues to the same extent that I had. Second, as I previously mentioned, I wanted to observe the team dynamic with minimal direct influence from me. Finally, I was concerned that if I was too confrontational it would impact my relationship with the participants and influence both their actions as well as willingness to participate in my study.
Another interesting experience during my field work was the participants’ responses towards me. At the beginning of the trip a volunteer participant asked me “so are you a researcher or a volunteer?” Her reaction to being observed was also interesting; one volunteer in particular told me “you make it very obvious… you’re very conspicuous when you’re taking notes, I can feel you watching me” (field notes, July 7th, 2017). The interesting part of her comment was that this particular participant had not been a key actor in my field notes. After this encounter my presence as a researcher became somewhat of a running gag with the participants. If someone did something particularly silly or someone agreed with me on something participants would say things such as “7 spills their water all over the table” or “6 is in solidarity with 9,” – dictating aloud what they thought I was writing. Additionally, every day at least one participant would ask me how my research was going and if I was getting “good information.” During these conversations I found it challenging to know how much to share because I had become close with several of the volunteers and did not want them to feel like I was being closed off or dishonest.
My experience this summer taught me many lessons about the challenges of field work. It revealed tensions around knowing when to listen and when to intervene. It helped me realize how important creating relationships with participants can be, but how challenging those relationships are to navigate. Finally, it reinforced the idea that research is not always a clear-cut process and that it is oftentimes messy and complicated. Although the messiness of research may prove to be difficult at times I also realized that this is part of what makes the process of researching engaging and exciting and something that, at the end of the day, I found to be incredibly rewarding.
By: Lillian Mitchell
Hi, my name is Lillian, a second-year Master’s student working with Noella. I recently attended my first conference outside of the Geography community of Guelph and I wanted to share a bit about what I learned. I was presenting my preliminary thesis results for the first time and I have to say it feels really good to be moving into that second year dynamic. This particular conference I attended was called ‘Sustainable Oceans: The Body Connecting Us All’, and opened with a video montage of people speaking about our human connection and dependence on our vast ocean resources. This theme is one that connects quite strongly with the larger project that Noella, Evan, and I are a part of, called ‘the Human Dimensions of Large Marine Protected Areas’ where we discuss that even though ocean spaces can be far removed from our daily lives, we can still feel a strong connection to these spaces. In partnership with researchers at Duke University and Colorado State University, this larger project is looking at five large marine protected areas (LMPAs) in Palau, Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Chile), the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (USA), Bermuda and Kiribati, with Guelph focusing on the Phoenix Islands protected area (PIPA) site in Kiribati. So, when Kiribati was mentioned in the keynote address by Brian Skerry that opened this conference, I was delighted to see Brian mention a theme from Kiribati that I have found particularly interesting.
Brian’s presentation was called ‘Luminous Seas’ because as he describes, as a photojournalist not only has he been illuminating his subjects, but the seas have also illuminated to him the problems that exist in our oceans. He explained how over the years of photographing life in the ocean he couldn’t ignore the problems that the oceans are facing, such as overfishing and pollution. However, in mentioning the Phoenix Islands he recalls how amazed he was at seeing such healthy reef systems and recalls that diving in the Phoenix islands was “truly like going back in time”. While he was describing the photographs he took in the Phoenix as very vivid and colourful, I recalled a comment from an interviewee in Kiribati who explained that it was really the photos that were brought back to the government that inspired the protection of that area through the establishment of PIPA. This interviewee said that, more so than scientific data about the value of the Phoenix Islands, it was the photography that really allowed people to connect to that space. This interface between the importance of strict science vs. evocative images was an interesting question in the case of Kiribati’s LMPA and one that was happy to hear Bryan speak on. In the case of Kiribati all the science in the world indicating the importance of the Phoenix islands as a biodiversity hotspot was not as motivating or compelling as a few photos.
I’ve learned a lot from my fieldwork in Kiribati but one of those takeaways has been that for a conservation initiative to be successful, people need to be inspired to care. So, not only did this conference give me some great first-time experience presenting my research, but it also had some great connections to my project. I was once told that graduate students should take as many opportunities as they can to practice presenting their research, so I’m trying to take that to heart. The Sustainable Oceans conference was a great way to begin doing just that.
Here group members (and sometimes colleagues and friends from our wider network!) write blog entries about interests, questions, and projects.